By Ramzy Baroud
Regardless of the outcome of Tuesday’s Israeli elections, the Palestinian parties will not reap meaningful political benefits, even if they collectively achieve their highest ever representation. The reason for this is not down to the parties themselves, but Israel’s skewed political system, which is predicated on racism and the marginalization of non-Jews.
Israel was established on a problematic premise of being the homeland of all Jews, everywhere — not of Palestine’s own native inhabitants — and on a bloody foundation; that of the Nakba, the destruction of historic Palestine and the expulsion of its people.
Such beginnings were hardly conducive to the establishment of a real democracy. And not only did Israel’s discriminatory attitude persist throughout the years, it actually worsened, especially as the Palestinian population rose disproportionately compared to the Jewish population.
The unfortunate reality is that some Palestinian parties have participated in Israeli elections since 1949, some independently and others under the ruling Mapai party umbrella. They did so despite Palestinian communities in Israel being ruled by a military government until 1966 and practically governed, until this day, by the unlawful “Defense (Emergency) Regulations.” This participation has constantly been touted by Israel and its supporters as proof of the state’s democratic nature.
This claim alone has served as the backbone of Israeli hasbara throughout the decades. Though often unwittingly, Palestinian political parties in Israel have provided the fodder for such propaganda, making it difficult for the Palestinian people to argue that the Israeli political system is fundamentally flawed and racist.
Palestinian citizens have always debated among themselves the pros and cons of taking part in Israeli elections. Some understand that their participation validates the Zionist ideology and Israeli apartheid, while others argue that refraining from participating in the political process denies Palestinians the opportunity to change the system from within.
The latter argument lost much of its merit as Israel sank deeper into apartheid, while the social, political and legal conditions for Palestinians worsened. The Legal Center for Arab Minority Rights in Israel, known as Adalah, catalogs dozens of discriminatory laws in Israel that exclusively target Palestinian communities. Additionally, in a report published in February, Amnesty International described how the “representation of Palestinian citizens of Israel in the decision-making process … has been restricted and undermined by an array of Israeli laws and policies.”
This reality has existed for decades, since long before July 19, 2018, when the Israeli parliament approved the so-called Jewish Nation-State Law. This law is the most glaring example of political and legal racism, making Israel a full-fledged apartheid regime. It is also the most articulate proclamation of Jewish supremacy over Palestinians in all aspects of life, including the right to self-determination.
Those who argued that Palestinian participation in Israeli politics served a purpose in the past should have done more than collectively denounce the Nation-State Law — they should have resigned en masse, effective immediately. They should have taken advantage of the international uproar to convert their struggle from a parliamentary one to a popular grassroots one.
Alas, they did not. They continued to participate in Israeli elections, arguing that if they achieved greater representation in the Knesset, they should be able to challenge the tsunami of discriminatory laws.
This did not happen, even after the Joint List, which unified four Palestinian parties in the March 2020 elections, achieved its greatest ever result, becoming the Knesset’s third-largest political bloc. This supposedly historic victory ultimately amounted to nil because all mainstream Jewish parties, regardless of their ideological backgrounds, refused to include the Joint List in their potential coalitions.
The enthusiasm that mobilized Palestinian voters to back the Joint List began to dwindle and the list itself fragmented thanks to Mansour Abbas, the head of Ra’am. In the March 2021 elections, Abbas wanted to change the dynamics of Palestinian politics in Israel altogether. “We focus on the issues and problems of the Arab citizens of Israel within the Green Line,” Abbas told Time magazine in June 2021, adding “we want to heal our own problems,” as if declaring a historic delink from the rest of the Palestinian struggle.
Abbas was wrong, as Israel perceives him, his followers, the Joint List and all Palestinians to be obstacles in its efforts to maintain the exclusivist “Jewish identity” of the state. The Abbas experiment, however, became even more interesting when Ra’am won four seats and joined a government coalition led by the far-right, anti-Palestinian politician Naftali Bennett. By the time the coalition collapsed in June, Abbas had achieved little, aside from splitting the Palestinian vote and proving yet again that changing Israeli politics from within is a fantasy.
Even after all of this, Palestinian parties in Israel still insist on participating in a political system that, despite its numerous contradictions, agrees on one thing: Palestinians are, and will always be, the enemy.
Even the violent events of May 2021, when Palestinians found themselves fighting on multiple fronts — against the Israeli army, police, intelligence services, armed settlers and even ordinary citizens — did not seem to change their politicians’ mindset. Palestinian population centers in Umm Al-Fahm, Lydda and Jaffa were attacked with the same racist mentality as Gaza and Sheikh Jarrah, illustrating that nearly 75 years of supposed integration under Israel’s political system had hardly changed the racist view toward Palestinians.
Instead of converting the energy of what Palestinians dubbed the “Unity Intifada” to invest in Palestinian unity, these politicians returned to the Knesset as if they still had hope of changing Israel’s inherently corrupt political system.
The self-delusion continues. On Sept. 29, Israel’s Central Elections Committee disqualified a Palestinian party, Balad, from running in the latest elections. The decision was eventually overturned by the country’s Supreme Court, prompting Adalah to describe the decision as “historic.” In essence, they suggested that Israel’s apartheid system still carries the hope of true democracy.
The future of Palestinian politics in Israel will remain grim if Arab politicians continue to pursue this failed tactic. Though the Palestinian citizens of Israel are socioeconomically privileged if compared to Palestinians in the Occupied Territories, they enjoy nominal or no substantive political or legal rights. By remaining loyal participants in Israel’s democracy charade, these politicians continue to validate the Israeli establishment, thus harming not only Palestinian communities in Israel, but Palestinians everywhere.